Mike Repole knows a little something about building a brand.
In 1999, he co-founded Glaceau, the company responsible for Smartwater and Vitaminwater. In 2007, Coke bought the company for $4.1 billion.
He then purchased an ownership stake in Pirate's Booty, became chairman, and in 2013 sold that company for $200 million.
His latest venture is Bodyarmor, the sports drink company he co-founded in 2011 that, according to Repole, is on track to do nearly $1 billion in sales this year.
A major component in the Bodyarmor marketing strategy involves partnerships with athlete-endorsers like James Harden, Megan Rapinoe, Dustin Johnson, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Naomi Osaka, and the late Kobe Bryant, whose initial stake of $6 million grew to be worth an estimated $200 million-plus.
The company also lassoed Mike Trout, arguably the best baseball player of this generation and whose 12-year, $430 million contract is the biggest in American sports history.
Building brand awareness through brand ambassadors obviously isn't a new strategy. Nor is it always successful: The association can result in a loss of money, time, and brand positioning for the business -- and, not incidentally, for the brand ambassador.
So how can you choose the right endorsement partner? How do you make the relationship work for your company and, just as important, for the individuals you partner with?
The process starts with truly knowing what your brand stands for, says Repole. "When I started the company," he says, "we saw Bodyarmor as the sports drink for the next generation. So instead of signing an established superstar athlete like Derek Jeter or Peyton Manning, we looked for up-and-coming superstars."
At the time, Trout was a rookie. Repole and other company executives met with Trout. They met with his parents. They tried, in Repole's words, to make Mike part of the Bodyarmor family.
Trout was interested, but still: Before he came on board, his father asked a local nutritionist to evaluate the product.
"Even in high school, I was a big guy," Trout says. "Every workout, every activity, I was always fighting cramps. First, I had to like the product and feel it made a genuine difference."
Next came the relationship. When Trout signed with Bodyarmor, he was an unproven rookie; today he's won three MVP awards and finished second in the balloting four times. Now a hot endorsement property, he's stayed with Bodyarmor for nearly nine years.
"Relationships for me are the biggest thing," Trout says. "Being able to interact with the company, having input into what they're doing, that's a huge factor. If you're putting your reputation behind a company, the company has to let you be involved, to help them keep improving. You have to be a real part of what they're trying to accomplish."
The real key to a successful partnership is to pick people who fit your brand DNA, says Repole. "For us, that's outworking your competition, doing whatever it takes, and embracing the fact that only you can make yourself better," he says. "The way people like Megan, Naomi, and Dustin train, the way they're constantly seeking new and better and different, the way they're always looking for a competitive edge, that brand association fits perfectly."